The Divide: Constitutional Convention Controversy

The Divide: Constitutional Convention Controversy

To hold a Constitutional Convention in 2019, or not, that is the question. Actually, the ballot question states: “Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution and amend the same?” It is Proposal Number 1 in this year’s general election to be held on November 7. The 13 words that make up the question have had the dual effect of dividing long-time partners while uniting longtime enemies over whether or not New Yorkers should support or oppose the convention.

A brief refresher on Constitutional Conventions: The New York State Constitution requires that every 20 years the citizens of the state must decide to hold a Constitutional Convention (“Con Con”) or not. If the Nays win, then that’s the end of it for another 20 years. If the Yeas win, then delegates will be elected in the November 2018 general election for the 2019 convening. Three delegates would be elected from each state senatorial district along with an additional 15 at-large statewide delegates for a total of 189 delegates. The Con Con would then convene in Albany at the state Capitol in April 2019. If any amendments to the Constitution are adopted at the Convention, they then would have to go before the electorate, most likely in the November general election, for approval. Should any of the proposed amendments pass, they would go into effect on January 1, 2020.

What I am finding extremely interesting about the proposed Con Con, is the dynamic of what groups are aligning with each other to either support or oppose the proposition. There are progressive groups such as the New York Civil Liberties Union and Citizen Action of New York (disclosure: I am a board member of both organizations’ Capital District Region chapters) in opposition, while one of their usual partners, the League of Women Voters, supports passage of the ballot question. Other strange marriages include Planned Parenthood, Environmental Advocates, and the Legal Aid Society joining forces with the Pistol and Rifle Association and the state’s Conservative Party in opposition to the proposed Con Con. These disparate groups couldn’t agree on what color blue the sky is, let alone on any legislative proposal. Yet here they are combining forces and funds to defeat passage of Proposal No. 1.Liberal and conservative organizations are not the only ones forming coalitions to either support or oppose the Con Con. Democratic and Republican officials are also taking one side or the other. New York City Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio and Republican NYS Senator John Flanagan are opposed, while NYS Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb and former counsel to Governor Mario Cuomo, Evan Davis, support the Con Con. Strange bedfellows, indeed.

The arguments for and against the Con Con are just as intriguing as the people and groups facing off on either side of the question. The pros and cons use some of the same examples to make their respective arguments. Here are a few of these contrarian viewpoints:
Change is needed: The pro Con Con groups argue that the only way New York State can change the “business as usual” system of state government is to have the people propose ethics reforms. They cite the fact that it took the state legislature seven years to pass the proposal to strip convicted elected officials of their pensions (Proposal No. 2 on the November ballot – I vote “yes”). The Con Con cons counter that position by arguing that only the people with lots of money and influence will be able to finance a campaign to be a delegate, so nothing will change. The cons feel that electing ethics and campaign reform candidates to the state legislature is the better way to go.

Pension protection: The Con Con opposition fear that public sector pensions would be under attack at the Convention. They believe that the current national movement to decrease worker protections could be the target of pro-business delegates, especially in the age of Trump. The talk coming from union leaders is that conservative-leaning delegates would change the state pension system from a “defined” system that guarantees retirees a specific pension amount, to one that is more like an individual retirement account system that is in use in much of corporate America. The Con Con supporters want to see changes in the pension system under the guise of “protecting the future of the system” for the next generation of retirees.

Protection from Washington’s influence: The proponents of the Convention view it as the best way to engage the public in determining how their government will operate. They say that it is necessary for the state to chart its own course to counter what is happening in Washington. The supporters see the Con Con as the best and quickest way to get necessary changes made to state government. Supporter Evan Davis believes that the people will elect delegates “committed to making the changes” to strengthen the constitution. On the other side, the antis feel that the Trump-effect could play a major role in who are chosen to be delegates, and thus who will have the most influence in proposing amendments to the state constitution. And those changes would be more in line with Washington and less favorable to the working class, union members, and people who are economically challenged and depend on the government to help with their everyday needs. Jess Wisneski, deputy director of Citizen Action of New York, stated: “The Constitutional Convention process has no rules, so all of the rights that protect us could be in jeopardy.”

My feeling is that Proposal Number 1 should be defeated in November. If the state legislature had put restrictions on how much money a delegate candidate could spend on their campaign, eliminated the LLC loophole on campaign donations, and prohibited corporations from financing delegate campaigns, I might have a different opinion. But, as is usual in New York State elections, those with money and connections will win a majority of the delegate seats, and those who want to see real campaign reform and stronger protections for union members, the middle class, and those struggling to “live the American Dream” will be left on the sidelines because of a lack of funds to run a campaign against big money.

The proposal for a Constitutional Convention has split liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, and newspaper editorial boards. This is a very interesting phenomenon on the confluence of groups on either side of the question. I won’t try to predict how the vote will go, as the polls are trending toward “no” from an early “yes” vote. But, I will predict a “what if” proposition: If the proposal passes, 2018 will see more money spent on the general election than any other state election in history. The special interests’ fight over winning delegate seats will be a most expensive battle.

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